Shawn Peters believes that HBO’s sword-series cuts both ways.
This past Sunday night, more than 8.2 million HBO subscribers watched the Season Four premiere of Game of Thrones, the premium network’s epic adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s apparently endless A Song of Ice and Fire novels. All of those viewers, myself included, had waited nine breathless months for the return of HBO’s most popular series to date, and most of those breathless viewers were men. Likewise, if you were to somehow find a way to divine the genders of the millions of others who hopped online to tune in on (and crash) HBO Go, you’d likely fine the same basic demographic split.
In 2013, Wired Magazine reported that while HBO hit was more popular with women than previously assumed, the show’s audience was still overwhelmingly male, with 58 percent of viewers claiming ownership of a “Y” chromosome.
It makes sense. After all, a show about knights and dragons and crowns and gratuitous nudity all adds up to traditionally “male” stuff. Everyone’s got a sword, which is outrageously phallic, and when they aren’t using their swords, the male characters can generally be found unsheathing their actual phalluses on the show. In fact, a year ago, the Telegraph online summed up the Season 3 premiere as “Blood, Boobs and Skullduggery.”
So let’s stipulate that Game of Thrones is a largely (though not exclusively) male-skewing show that features a lot of manly men doing manly things, many of which are non-too-flattering to the gender
Start with the misogyny on display, as knaves and knights alike treat women as wenches, put on earth to satisfy their raging libidos. The ubiquitous potential for rape (and the concrete threat of rape) is a constant on the show any time a female character is in the company of heavily armed men without being protected by a phalanx of more-heavily-armed “honorable” men.
Next, we feature the patriarchal power structure in play, where a female heir to any throne, land or title is a last resort for the noble houses of Westeros and beyond. For the better part of two seasons, Queen Cersei could not truly rule after she was widowed, enjoying only a brief window of true power before her bastard of son (both figuratively and literally) shrugged off her influence entirely. In Season One, a virginal, young Daenerys Targaryen was married off to a Dothraki warlord she’d never met so her brother, the deposed heir to the Iron Throne, could co-opt his new brother-in-law’s horde and try to reclaim his crown.
And finally, lets talk abject violence. A recent viral video documented all 5,179 on-screen deaths in the first three seasons of the show. Without going frame by frame, which can lead to the inability to ever eat Bolognese sauce again, I can promise you that well over 5100 of those killings were perpetrated by dudes. In fact, its fair to say there is not a single major (or significant minor) male character on the show who hasn’t been willfully responsible for the death of at least one other character. Then again, there may only be two or three females who could make that claim… but still, three-to-zero is still a shut-out.
So it’s settled, right? Game of Thrones is a total throwback show, meant to appeal to men… dudes… bros. Pure Pop Rocks and Coca Cola for the Male Lizard-Brain.
Except what if it isn’t? What if all of that blood and patriarchy and dagger-waving are a Trojan horse for a show that is simultaneously also redefining the medieval notion of masculinity in the open spaces between the obvious?
In season one, the first time we ever see all the greatest knights in the seven kingdoms competing against each other in a tournament, the winner is Sir Loras, who we later learn is gay, and in a relationship with Renly Baratheon, the king’s brother. Also, it’s apparently the worst-kept secret in Westeros, yet no one says or does anything about it, likely because Sir Loras’ valor and skill are totally unaffected by his sexual preference.
Then, in Sunday’s Season Four premiere, we meet Prince Oberyn Martell, who is widely regarded as one of the deadliest warriors south of the Wall. How are we introduced to him? In a brothel, where he picks a woman for his paramour to play with… and then selects the effete male pimp to be his own personal pleasure provider.
And while we’re talking about the fiercest and most accomplished knights and fighters in the Game of Thrones universe, we’d be remiss not to talk about an individual who has bested the previously mentioned Sir Loras in one melee and then proved to be more than a match for arguably the greatest swordsman in Westeros, Jaime Lannister. That character’s name is Brienne of Tarth, and yes, although there are tons of funky names on the show, “Brienne” is still a woman’s name in the seven kingdoms. She’s huge, strong, and full of honor. And before you make any other assumptions, she’s totally into guys, having revealed two different crushes on unattainable men.
Once is fluke. Twice is a coincidence. But three times is a pattern and the writers and producers of Game of Thrones have gone out of their way to make it clear that in their realm, a man doesn’t have to be a “man’s man” to be masculine and powerful. He could be a “men’s” man, or a “men and women’s” man, or not even a man at all.
And just in case anyone feels left out, Game of Thrones fans only have to look across the Narrow Sea to where Daenerys has gathered an army of the most efficient and skilled warriors on the planet to fight for her as she liberates slaves and prepares to return to Westeros to reclaim the Iron Throne. That army is called “The Unsullied” and every man in its ranks is a eunuch. If that isn’t a conversation stopper, I don’t know what is.
Yes, Game of Thrones is a guilty pleasure, filled with ultra-violent confrontations and super-sexualized characters. It is a place where a premium TV subscriber (or someone with a premium TV subscriber’s HBO GO log-in) can go to see blood and breasts in every episode, and I guarantee you there are many who watch it just for that reason. But don’t doubt for a second that while all of that gratuitous sex and violence is hitting viewers over the head… a little bit of paradigm shifting and role redefinition is being slid, like a blade, in between the audience’s armor.